Civil war may have devastated much of Syria over the past two-and-a-half years, but one part of the country – its northeastern Kurdish region – has been relatively unscathed.
Last month, however, a flood of nearly 200,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees into the largely autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq raised new fears that Syria’s Kurds are becoming increasingly embroiled in the Middle East’s most violent conflict.
The refugees were fleeing attacks by jihadist groups that attacked Kurdish communities along the Turkish border. Militant groups such as al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, are fighting to control border areas near Turkey because they control vital supply routes.
The fighting was also sparked in part by Syrian Kurds trying to form an interim government in the area -- complete with a constitution and a parliament. The plans unveiled in mid-July by the Democratic Union Party, known as the PYD, led to fighting between PYD-affiliated militias, known as the YPG, and the largest Syrian opposition armed group, the Syrian Free Army. The YPG also fought with jihadi groups like Jabhat al-Nusra.
Turkey takes an interest
Now, as Syria’s Kurds are increasingly coming into conflict with the Syrian opposition, they are being courted by regional players like Turkey. As Syria’s Kurds fled by the tens of thousands into northern Iraq, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, invited PYD’s leader, Saleh Muslim, to Istanbul to discuss Turkey’s faltering efforts to put a peaceful end to its own 29-year Kurdish revolt. The move was seen as a surprise because the PYD is closely affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the Turks consider a terrorist organization.
Experts said Muslim and Davutoglu appeared to be negotiating an understanding that will aid Turkey’s pursuit of peace in its eastern Anatolia region. Since Damascus pulled most of its troops from the region last year to bolster efforts to defeat Syria’s rebels elsewhere, PYD militia units have guarded Syria’s pipelines and until recently suppressed anti-Assad protests.
“The PYD and Assad work together to secure the oil pipe lines for the regime and to stop anti-regime demonstrations,” said Eva Savelsberg, director of the KurdWatch
human right blog and president of the Berlin-based European Center for Kurdish Studies.
But the direction the PYD takes in the name of Syria’s Kurds ultimately depends on their own pursuit of power and on the leadership of Kurdish militants across the border in Turkey, say observers of Kurdish regional affairs.
“It’s controlled by the PKK,” said Wladimir van Wilgenburg
, a Kurdish affairs analyst writing for Istanbul’s Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, referring to the PYD.
Power resides in the militias
Much of the strength of this emerging Kurdish political power comes from the YPG militias who control three enclaves – Afrin, Ayn al-Arab and Hasakah province - along Syria’s northern borders. These enclaves enable them to recruit and levy taxes on oil shipments crossing the Syrian border, where they continue to clash with Jabhat al-Nursa units for nearby border crossings.
The PYD also gained strength from the arrival of PKK cadres who left Turkey in apparent compliance with Turkey’s peace demands.
“In the last four weeks a lot of PKK cadres came to Syria,” said Savelsberg. “What the YPG is doing is getting more weapons and more power, possibly to confront Jabhat al-Nusra.”
The PYD claims it does not side with the Assad regime or his political opposition. They call it the “third way”, said van Wilgenburg. “But their rivals accuse them of being close to the regime.”
Kurdish politics in Syria cross many borders. Most parties have joined one of four blocks with links to Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq or the PKK in Turkey. Most recently, parties within the Kurdish National Council (KNC), an opposition group to the YPG, have joined with the Istanbul-based exiles of the Syrian National Coalition.
“The PYD is not happy with that,” said van Wilgenburg, “They see it as a coup against their autonomy plan.”
“It’s quite complicated,” he said.
In a bid to ease tensions the KNC and the YPG recently formed the Kurdish Supreme Committee and both groups are supposed to jointly administer areas under Syrian Kurdish control until elections can be held. But observers say tensions remain between the two groups.
Who will be PYD's partner?
“I think it’s clear who the bad guys are,” said Savelsberg. “That’s clearly the PKK and the PYD.”
“Hardly anyone is ever critical of the PYD,” said Savelsberg. Kurds do not object to YPG’s repressive tactics because some are afraid, she said. Others are silent because “a lot of Kurds have the opinion that being persecuted by Kurds is better than being persecuted by Arabs.”
The YPG militias have earned a reputation for destroying community centers, civil society offices and headquarters of the political opposition in the region, said Savelsberg. In June armed YPG forces attacked a street demonstration in Amuda, killing six activists and wounding dozens more, drawing international protest.
“The PYD wants people to forget what happened in Amuda, where they kidnapped and killed a lot of activists and lost a lot of sympathy,” said Savelsberg. “They needed to put the focus on someone else and who is the better enemy than Islamists.”
The PYD is loyal to Assad “only as long as it is useful for them,” said Savelsberg. “It’s not so much they are supporting the regime. They now want to consolidate their own power. They choose their partners for military strength."